Water for Growing Food is a Common Good

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“Water for Agriculture = Food Security for New Mexico”

– New Mexico Acequia Association bumper sticker


One cannot overstate the importance of water to the communities of the Southwest.  The region is home to ancient agricultural traditions that reflect the sacredness of water and its centrality to survival. Today, clean and secure water remains vital to the well-being of communities, both urban and rural, as well as of the ecosystems that nurture our existence.

Food traditions and the reverence of water are integral to both Native American and acequia cultures.  From the acequia perspective, we view water as a “don divino” or divine gift from God that should be treated with respect and shared equitably.  These principles form the basis of our customs and traditions with regard to water but also permeate the cultural values of the traditional acequia communities throughout New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

The Southwest is an area of extreme water scarcity.  The land-based people of the region, including acequia communities, through many generations learned to live amid water scarcity through values that could be broadly described as follows:

·         Water is precious and should be used very conservatively

·         Water is essential to the survival of all living things and should be shared

·         Water should be clean enough to drink and to grow food that we eat

In acequia communities, one of the most important characteristics of our system of water governance is the repartimiento, or water sharing customs.  Within these unique and localized customs, local parciantes come together to elect their Mayordomo, or caretaker of the acequia, and the Comision, the three member commission that guides the management of the acequia.   The Mayordomo is entrusted with the responsibility of allocating water within his or her respected acequia according to local custom.  These customs are on-the-ground articulation of the importance of food.  Depending on the acequia, a common practice is to prioritize the family gardens that are used for subsistence and to provide drinking water for livestock.  Next in priority might be row crops and finally pasture.  Mayordomos also have the responsibility of determining the water sharing agreements between neighboring acequias.  In times of drought, the job of the Mayordomo becomes even more challenging as he or she calls upon all the parciantes to shorten their irrigation times in order to share the shortage.  These traditions have endured many centuries and continue to be a vibrant part of today’s modern acequias.

Another characteristic of the acequia system is that we view water as being attached to the land.  This view was supported by the legal tradition we inherited from Spain and Mexico.  However, the water doctrine adopted in the Western United States treats water rights as a commodity that is severable from the land.  This has grave implications for traditional agriculture which depends on surface water from springs, streams, and rivers.   If agricultural water rights are “transferred” to other uses that use groundwater, such as municipal, industrial, and other commercial uses, this could dry up agricultural communities while also irreversibly mining our aquifers. 

The acequia leadership in New Mexico has argued that severing water rights from agricultural land could unravel the communal fabric that holds the acequias together.  The proponents of “water markets,” in which water rights are bought and sold, argue that water should be allocated to the highest economic use.  While it is important to have the flexibility to adapt to the changing needs of our communities, we cannot afford to allow markets to operate unfettered and completely dry up agricultural lands as well as our groundwater supplies that are an integral part of the springs and streams that we depend upon.

Generally, the water policy framework in the Western United States enables the water market but only under certain conditions.   In New Mexico, the State Engineer must evaluate water transfers and new appropriations for water, usually groundwater, to determine whether such a use would be detrimental to the public welfare, contrary to the conservation of water, and could result in impairment of existing water rights. 

The acequias and everyone who cares about our water must effectively make the argument that it is vital to the public welfare and the common good that we protect our ability to grow food.  Therefore, we need to retain water rights for agriculture.   Many of our communities are engaged in a monumental effort to rebuild our local food systems.   In order to do so, we will need to protect the farmland and water rights that are the foundation of our farming and ranching traditions.  The following value statements are part of what drives the work of the New Mexico Acequia Association may have broader resonance with all land-based people and supporters of strengthening local food systems:

·         Protecting water rights for growing food is an essential part of our food security and our cultural identity.

·         Generational memory about customs for sharing scarce water has an intrinsic value to humanity.

·         Local water governance and ways of expressing collective decisions about water are essential to the stewardship our precious waters.